Robert Ascherman
Abahlali baseMjondolo (Shack Dwellers) Movement South Africa
South Africa

This June to August, I am spending two months with Abahlali baseMjondolo, Zulu for “Residents of the Shacks.” The Shack dwellers Movement is the largest movement in South Africa  and opposes the evictions, legal or illegal of shack dwellers being imposed on them by the ANC. They are demanding land, housing, and human dignity, along with all the benefits that come with it (sanitation, health care, electricity, geographic location near the schools and their places of work, etc.).I first arrived in South Africa on June 16, the country’s  National Youth Day, which commemorates the 1967 Soweto Uprising. During the uprising high school students took to the streets after the Apartheid Government, without consulting students or teachers, passed the Afrikaans Medium Decree, declaring the official languages for education would be English and Afrikaans. Indigenous languages were largely to be ignored and Afikaans was considered the language of the oppressors. When Punt Janson, the Deputy Miniser of Bantu Education, was questioned about whether or not he had consulted the people who were to be affected by the act,  he replied with disdain and vehemence:

“A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory. He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking and the man who has to give him instructions may be either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarrelling about the medium of instruction among the Black people as well? … No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”

When the students rose up against the act in refusal to be the people suffering the laws rather than deciding them—to borrow from Abahali’s language—the state responded with mass violence, killing anywhere from 176-700 people and wounding over a thousand people. Despite the state’s violence, the Soweto Rising is often considered a starting point in the ANC’s rise to power and overthrow of apartheid. Even though the uprising was independently organized by students who created the Soweto Student Representative Council’s Action Committee and supported by the Black Consciousness Movement, the ANC was best positioned to take advantage of the moment created by the uprising.During Abahlali’s Youth Day Meeting (9:00am to 4:00pm…and students at NYU complain after sitting for an hour or two!) the leaders of the organization made many comparisons between the assassination of their comrade Thuli Ndlovu (one of four Abahlali leaders to be assassinated within a year, including Nqobile Nzuza,  Nkululeko Gwala, and Thembinkosi Qumbelo) and Hector Pieterson, a young boy who was  one of the first people to be murdered during the Soweto Uprising. Leaders in the Youth League told the participants, “We have to be a fearless movement.” It was a fearless youth who brought down apartheid and it is fearless youth who work to ensure everyone has their rights to land, housing, and human dignity.